Turkey's ISIS problem
On March 27 an audio tape recording of high-level Turkish officials discussing Turkey's Syria strategy was leaked on YouTube. The meeting was held between Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu, Deputy Chief of the Armed Forces General Staff Yasar Guler, and Hakan Fidan, the head of the Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MIT).
The leak went viral on social media due to Fidan's alleged proposal to stage an attack to justify future Turkish military operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) in Syria. President Abdullah Gul condemned the leak over national security concerns, and YouTube was banned in Turkey after the leak.
Tensions between Turkish security forces and ISIS have been on the rise, particularly in the past couple of weeks. In mid-March, the Turkish press reported that ISIS fighters had surrounded the Suleyman Shah tomb, which is located in northern Syria, 15 miles outside of Turkey's border, but is officially considered Turkish territory under the 1921 agreement with France. ISIS had taken control of the town of Jarablus near the tomb in January. Foreign Minister Davutoglu had responded to the reports with vows that Turkey would retaliate should there be an attack on the tomb, no matter which group the attacks came from.
Davutoglu's statement was followed by two key events. The first was an attack on March 20 by three militants against Turkish security forces manning a checkpoint in Turkey's Nigde province. Two security force members and police officer were killed, and the suspects were arrested. Prime Minister Erdogan and Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay immediately attributed the attack to groups operating in Syria.
According to Interior Minister Efkan Ala's statement, the three attackers carried ammunition and hand grenades, spoke Arabic, and are of Albanian and Kosovar origin. It was determined that the attackers were ISIS fighters from the ISIS-controlled Atmeh region in Syria and belonged to the Interpol's 1470-person al Qaeda list. Reportedly they had entered Turkey illegally from Hatay, a Turkish province on the Syrian border that has been increasingly exposed to the extremist actors in the Syrian opposition such as the Al Nusrah Front and Ansar al Sham.
The second event occurred the following day. In a video message published on YouTube on March 21, ISIS allegedly threatened to attack the Suleyman Shah tomb, giving Turkey three days to withdraw from the territory and bring down the Turkish flag. The tomb sits on approximately 2.5 acres and is symbolically protected by 15 Turkish soldiers. The video was later removed from YouTube and its authenticity was never verified. Although the deadline has passed, there have been no attacks on the tomb.
As tensions escalate along Turkey's border with Syria and the composition of extremists within the opposition diversifies, Turkish leaders are becoming uncomfortable. The 15-minute discussion on the leaked March 27 recording revolves mainly around ISIS and the tomb of Suleyman Shah. Throughout the meeting, all four officials repeatedly voice their concerns over the growing national security threat.
Although the whistleblowers who leaked the audio recording have emphasized that the plan proposed by Fidan involved staging purported ISIS attacks on Suleyman Shah, the recording may also be interpreted such that the plan was mentioned to illustrate the scope of the already existing ISIS threat. Fidan repeatedly raises the point that such a plan to defend the tiny Turkish territory from an alleged ISIS attack would be unnecessary and that the threat of extremism to Turkey reaches well beyond the Suleyman Shah issue.
Under the latter interpretation, the facts that there are ISIS fighters so close to Turkey's border, and that there have been ISIS attacks inside Turkey already, are sufficient justification for Turkey to conduct operations against ISIS inside Syria. The other people in the room also appear to agree with Fidan on this; they are simply saying that Turkey should seize the opportunity (the threat against the tomb) to act now if it is ever going to act against ISIS. When the foreign minister warns them about international law, Sinirlioglu says that in terms of international law, Turkey would be fine, because no one is going to condemn Turkey for wanting to protect itself against an al Qaeda-linked group.
As the conflict in Syria grinds on, Turkey's bordering towns are increasingly becoming hubs for Syrian extremists and militants. Turkey is being used as a transit country for international jihadists going to Syria, including those coming from Europe. Turkey has sent back 815 Europeans who have tried to cross from Turkey into Syria to join radical groups to their respective European countries, and 655 people were put on a search list.
Although Turkey has been a staunch supporter of the opposition since the beginning of the crisis, as the nature of the war in Syria changes, Turkey's national security is falling under the threat of radical groups. Turkish military and police have reportedly stepped up their border control efforts and particularly intensified checks in Gaziantep, the Turkish province across from the ISIS-controlled Jarablus.
Mervé Tahiroglu is a Research Associate and Turkey Specialist at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.